SUMMARY – The 10-second review
A harsh look at modern, middle class people doing what people have been doing forever: cheating. In more ways than one. Great book club read.
I have mixed feelings indeed about The Answer to Everything. There’s a lot that’s very good about this book, but oh so much to dislike in the characters, that it taints the reading of the book. Overall though, it’s a fine novel and a good read.
The story revolves around two couples living in a tarted-up 1990s housing estate. First thing I liked was the vividness of the setting. I did not know that it’s a thing now for developers to revisit the cheap, poorly constructed housing estates built 30-some years ago and try to salvage them with a modern makeover. I don’t even know if it actually happens, but it rings very true.
It’s a totally apt setting for the story, which is all about subterfuge: putting on a good façade while underneath there’s crap going on. Really, 5 stars for how well this setting works in the story.
The Answer to Everything is extremely well written. The author is also a poet, and it shows. No, not because it is ‘poetic’ in the sense that that term is often used, meaning elaborate or ‘flowery’ but rather because the language is sparse and beautifully controlled. It is actually quite prosaic, mostly, which adds to the sense of ordinary domesticity.
The story unfolds slowly, step by step, largely told through WhatsApp text messages between Emily and Elliott. The increasingly intense messages (which are extremely convincing and believable) are offset against the daily domesticity and ordinariness of their ‘real’ life. On the surface, it’s quite a simple story of two people unexpectedly falling deeply in love with each other. But again, there are layers: what they are expressing in their text messages, and what they are actually doing. For some time, they don’t even talk about their text exchanges when they are together, as though not talking about it will keep it all in the realm of fantasy.
Such layers are a theme throughout the book: too many spoilers involved to go into them all!
In this respect, The Answer to Everything is extremely clever and skillful. Definitely we’re in 5-star territory.
Where it loses a star or two is in some of the things various characters do, that stretch credibility. In particular the odd relationship between Elliott and his wife doesn’t ring true (for me anyway). It works as a plot device as the that it is, but is not totally successful in other ways. It’s not about whether I think ‘someone like that would do something like that’ and more that, in several instances, with several of the characters, the author didn’t manage to convince me, to suspend my disbelief. The character didn’t come to life in a believable way.
I did feel very judgmental about the main characters, not just Emily and Elliott but their respective spouses Steven and Alathea too. And — to the author’s credit or not — I’m not really sure if the author deliberately manipulated that reaction from me or if that was just me. Certainly, Emily expresses doubts and guilt, acknowledging that what she is doing is wrong and that she is bringing unhappiness down on herself through her own sinful actions, but I think that’s more because she’s religious, and I don’t think this harsh judgment is necessarily supposed to apply to the other characters. Should I instead have felt some empathy for them in their ‘predicament’? Hmmm, interesting; I’m scratching my head on that one.
And that makes me think that this would be a terrific book for a book club. Could lead to some very interesting discussions about fidelity, monogamy and middle class values. About eco-friendly housing estates. And about what is, really, the answer to everything?
My thanks to Netgalley for giving me a free copy of this book. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.
The Answer to Everything is available from all major booksellers.
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